MALTA DIARY: They came, they saw and they conquered – the Romans in Malta
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It is more than obvious that when Rome and the Romans conceived their potency for empire-building, among their first overseas colonies would be little Malta, lying just 60 kilometres south of Sicily and with a commanding geographical position in the Central Mediterranean and therefore a precious staging post, particularly to North Africa.
The Maltese Islands had first been settled by Sicilian stragglers heading south (estimated to have been in 7,500 BC) and therefore looked upon as part of Roman territory – and later, Italian domain. This theory continued to persist for over 1,930 years AD and when Benito Mussolini seized power, Italy, and a considerable number of Maltese, declared Malta to be an extension of Italian territory which led to a number of arrests during World War II on grounds of “treason” against the British Empire.
Nevertheless, when the Romans arrived, the Islanders did not speak Latin but had adopted the Semitic tongue of the earlier Phoenicians. When St Paul was shipwrecked on the islands in 60AD, although hailing from Tarsus he was familiar with the Semitic tongue, his Roman citizenship caused him to class the Islanders as being “hospitable but barbarians” – meaning they did not have a Latin language.
Before Paul’s arrival, the Romans came in what is estimated as 218BC, saw and conquered, an island that had no governance except tribal territory and clusters of farmers, hunters and fishing folk, although the penchant to largely inhabit the northern part of Malta, today Rabat and Mdina, was already manifest, a penchant first adopted by the merchant Phoenicians.
The Romans established governance under a Roman Governor, at the time of Paul’s arrival one Publius who subsequently converted to Christianity, as did the rest of the islanders.
The Romans too, similar to their forebears the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, (Hannibal is reputed to have been born in Malta and later organised the march of elephants over the Alps to attack Roman strongholds during the Punic Wars!) and later their successors, the Arabs, chose Rabat and Mdina as the ideal places for settlement because of the area’s fertility, greenery and general pleasantness.
As with elsewhere, the Romans left their architectural inheritance that remains today. These include the sites of the Domus Romana (the Roman Villa outside Mdina), the Temple of Apollo, the Temple of Prosperina, the Roman Baths at Ghajn Tuffiefa, the Roman villa at Zejtun, six Roman towers, San Pawl Milqi and the Roman catacombs at Rabat.
By far the most splendid is the Domus Romana (domus in Latin means ‘house’ and therefore the Roman House/Villa) which is located between Rabat and Mdina. It was built in the 1st Century BC for an aristocratic family and later used by the Arabs as an Islamic cemetery. The site was discovered in 1881 and revealed well preserved Roman mosaics, statues and many other artefacts as well as Islamic tombs.
The Roman baths at Ghajn Tuffieha were discovered in 1929 when Government workers were capping a fresh water spring in the area. The site was excavated under the supervision of Sir Themistocles Zammit, the famed historian and excavator.
Excavations revealed a sophisticated bath system including cold water, hot and temperate bathing water areas, a latrine and corridors linking a number of small rooms used as dormitories by visiting bathers. The rooms are decorated with elaborate mosaics and stones arranged in geometric designs.
Rabat holds an array of catacombs originating from the period of the Phoenicians (circa 1,500BC) who traded in Malta together with their Jewish partners. These include St Paul’s Catacombs as well as the St Agatha, St Katald and St Augustine Catacombs. Some of these were possibly still in use as late as the seventh and eighth Century AD.
Initially these were large and rectangular shafts with chambers dug into the sides. Later the chambers grew larger than having space for corridors.
Those dedicated to St Paul are said to have miraculous powers of stone regeneration in that no matter how much stone is cut, it replenishes itself (a good myth for tourists no doubt).
However, there was a famous occasion when in the early days of tourism a guide was taking a group of tourists around the catacombs but his command of English was very limited.
During one tour in which he experienced difficulties in explaining the stone regeneration, he blurted out “cut and cut, you never cut!” Maybe another myth – who knows?
“The bell doesn’t ring for no reason”.
A sign of approaching bad news, likened to a funeral tome.